After decades of civil war, during which time the Burmese military has constantly been criticized for recruiting underage soldiers, Burma’s government on Wednesday signed a UN action plan pledging to abolish the use of children in the country’s armed forces by 2014.
According to Burma’s state-run media, the agreement includes a plan to immediately release all underage soldiers—defined as anyone younger than 18—not only from the government forces but also from ethnic armed groups.
The office of the UN Secretary-General, in a May 2011 report to the Security Council, listed eight armies in Burma that it believes regularly recruit and use children: the Burmese army, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Kachin Independence Army, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council, the Karenni army, the Shan State Army-South and the United Wa State Army.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Thursday, David Takapaw, the vice-chairman of the KNU [political wing of the KNLA], said, “We signed a convention in Geneva in 2008—a commitment to end the policy of using child soldiers. We may have had some child soldiers in the past, but nowadays we do not allow anyone under the age of 18 to join us. The UN and various NGOs have already confirmed this.”
Takapaw said he welcomed the news of the UN’s action plan to abolish the use of underage soldiers in Burma.
The joint action plan was signed in the Burmese capital, Naypyidaw, by: Maj-Gen Ngwe Thein, the director of the Directorate of Military Strength, Ministry of Defence; Maj-Gen Tin Maung Win, the vice-adjutant general of Burma’s armed forces; the UN Resident Coordinator Ashok Nigam; and UNICEF representative Ramesh Shrestha.
“UNICEF welcomes the signing of the action plan and is ready to support the government to take forward these key commitments,” said UNICEF’s Shrestha. “The most important work begins now to ensure that children are released from the Tatmadaw [Burmese army] as soon as possible and are returned to their families and communities, and receive support to promote their well-being, learning and livelihoods.”
Co-chairing the task force with Shrestha was UN Resident Coordinator Nigam.“The signing of the Action Plan brings a great opportunity for the United Nations and the Country Task Force to work together with the government and send a strong message that children should not, and will no longer, be recruited and used for military purposes,” he said.
UK-based World Vision’s Senior Child Rights Policy Advisor Erica Hall said, “This is a bold step by the Government of Myanmar [Burma]. They’ve promised to end the recruitment of underage soldiers and, crucially, allowed the international community to ensure this promise is being carried out.
“It’s the result of five years of work behind the scenes. Of course, we’re not there yet and we shall be monitoring progress carefully—but it’s a big step in the right direction.”
However, some observers were skeptical that the plan would be implemented.
“I do not believe that they will stop using children in the military. On the ground, they are still recruiting children,” said lawyer Aye Myint who is a leading labor activist in Pegu.
He said that about 10,000 children have been released under his project over the past five to six years with the help of the International Labor Organization. He said that only about 100 cases remained outstanding in 2011.
Washington-based Human Rights Watch said in 2007 that youngsters are often kidnapped on their way home from school. They are then brutalized and physically abused during their induction and basic training before being shipped off to fight in the country’s border areas, it said. HRW also accused some of the ethnic rebel armies of using child soldiers.
Ninety-three child soldiers were discharged from the Burmese army through government mechanisms from January to December 2010, according to the UN Secretary-General’s office.
In 2010, the task force regularly followed up on reported cases, but access restrictions in Burma continued to limit the number of cases that the task force was able to verify. Most cases of recruitment were of children between 15 to 17 years of age, and the majority were from Rangoon Division, it reported.
Children were most often persuaded or duped by relatives (working in the Tatmadaw), soldiers (to earn a promotion or other incentives) and other brokers to join the army, according the secretary-general’s office.
“The best and most effective way to end the policy of recruiting underage soldiers is for the government to issue a mandate to military officers in the field to release all children from their bases. We should not have to wait until a child disappears and rights groups investigate to find out if he or she has been recruited at a military base,” said Aye Myint.